Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy (Hamaguchi Ryūsuke, 2021)
The similarities I found to Hong Sangsoo in Hamaguchi Ryūsuke’s last feature, Asako I & II, were surface level, based on the inexplicable doubling of (at least) one main character in a romance (as in Yourself and Yours), while the bulk of the movie’s greatness was to be found elsewhere, in digressions about acting and authenticity and the natural world that seem to be more uniquely the director’s true interest. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy works much the same way, with Hamaguchi bending a Hongian framework to his own purposes. In this case it’s three stories (each with their own title card and cast list, scored with classical music, along the lines of Oki’s Movie) about, well, fortune and fantasy: chance encounters leading to some kind of acting leading to a wide range of emotional experiences: bittersweet, tragic, infuriating, despairing, and heart-warmingly inspirational.
In each story chance works by bringing to the fore an experience from the characters’ past, offering them an opportunity to recontextualize it and come to some kind of resolution with actions (and inactions) they regret. The first is about a woman who realizes that the guy her friend has had a magical first date with is in fact her ex, a man she cheated on but now might want to win back. The coincidence presents her with an opportunity to get him back and alienate her friend (and probably ruin the guy’s life, again) or somehow make amends with the man she wronged. She plays out both scenarios, at least one of which is certainly in her head, though maybe everything after her initial conversation with the friend (where she play-acts not knowing who the guy is) is imagined.
The second story is the thorniest, with significant jumps in time and a shakiness in its belief in human decency. A young man wants to get back at a former professor who refused to let him slide by on his French requirement (as someone who did slide by on his foreign language requirements at two different universities, I can relate). We see his humiliating attempt at begging for a pass at the beginning of the story, then skip ahead some time later to him convincing his quasi-girlfriend, an older student (she’s married and has a kid) to seduce the professor, or at least get him on tape saying something inappropriate. She does this by going to his office hours and reading a particularly racy chapter of his recent book (which has just won the Akutagawa Prize, a real award named in honor of the great short story writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, most famous in the West as the author of Rashomon¹). Their plan fails, however, because the professor is a little oblivious and also just basically a nice guy. Feeling shamed by his honesty, the woman admits her scheme and the two have a heartfelt, therapeutic conversation. But the professor, being perhaps too honest, asks for a copy of the recording because he liked the sound of her voice as she read. Chance again intervenes as a typo makes the email public, ruining both of their lives. And again time skips ahead, five years this time, to a chance meeting between the woman and the young man, giving them both the opportunity to express regret and possibly atone for their past behavior, which only one of them really comes close to doing.
If the first story is ultimately indeterminate (we don’t know what, if any, action the heroine takes) and the second more than a little depressing (decent people undermined by chance while the morally flexible are unrepentant), the third is a lovely ode to the power of performance, playacting, role-play, in connecting people both to their pasts (in confronting and emotionally resolving regrets) and to other people. Two women recognize each other in passing on an escalator as someone they went to high school with. They meet for tea and only after some time awkwardly realize that the other is not who they thought they were, but in fact a complete stranger. But each empathasizes with the other’s problem and they playact the conversations they would like to have had with the person from their past. It’s the kind of magical conversation one imagines the date in the first story might have been, though it starts with mistaken identity and ends in false identity. Fortune and fantasy don’t undermine the power of the women’s catharses, in fact they are what makes it possible in the first place.
— — —
¹An interesting and possibly relevant passage from Akutagawa’s wikipedia page:
“Akutagawa had a highly publicized dispute with Jun’ichirō Tanizaki over the importance of structure versus lyricism in story. Akutagawa argued that structure, how the story was told, was more important than the content or plot of the story, whereas Tanizaki argued the opposite.”